By Stephen M. Frey – AIA, LEED AP
Vermont’s first straw bale affordable senior housing project has been built in Holland, in The Northeast Kingdom. Becky Masure, project manager for the affordable housing non-profit, Rural Edge, says, “The Page Holland Senior Housing project helps seniors retain their independence while they remain in Holland close to their extended local community of family and friends.”
Evelyn Page, now deceased, donated land from her family’s nearby farm and funding in memory of her late husband to Rural Edge. Over the last few years, energy efficient construction methods have become increasingly expensive for them, often making it difficult to achieve the affordability goal. With this project, Rural Edge is testing a new approach and new ideas.
Straw bale appealed to the owner for a number of reasons such as helping with fire-resistance, insulation capability of the straw, savings on labor costs, availability of local talent in the area to build this way, carbon-footprint reduction, low-embodied energy, chemical- and allergy-free composition. Enduring comfort, durability, and beauty of straw also inspired Rural Edge to try this approach. So they asked the architects to consider straw bale as a possibility after reviewing other choices.
Ward Joyce Design, with Arocordis Design as a collaborator, designed the project. Ina Hladky provided structural engineering. They designed two single-bedroom apartments with a shared common area, an entry porch, and separate unit porches facing south. The building sits on the edge of a hillside site. Taking architectural form cues from nearby farm buildings, the bent uplifting roof reaches south towards dramatic rolling farmland vistas. Built on a cost-reducing frost-protected concrete slab, the builder installed empty sleeves designed into the slab for future installation of on-site solar electric PVs with the potential for greater self-reliance.
The architects sited the building facing the long way, south-to-north orientation for passive solar heating. Operable awning and casement windows naturally ventilate each unit and common area. Ceiling fans circulate air in the living spaces.
A small parking area serves building residents and visitors with a winding drive leading to nearby Page Road. Eventually as the site is finished, the owner will install and maintain pathways around the building along with a small vegetable garden and edible landscaping to provide fresh food for residents.
Uncontrolled moisture is the natural enemy of straw bale construction, so the architects paid close attention to strategies reducing exposure to wind driven rain and snow. Extensive roof overhangs shed water away from the plaster and stucco walls. A two-foot-high double-stud pony wall forms a base on which the non-structural straw bales rest. The pony wall is cellulose-insulated. Straw bales extend up to the underside of an I-joist framed cellulose insulated sloping roof clad in gray EPDM.
Lee Cooper of Back 2 Basics Builders, the general contractor, built a post-and-beam frame, with 18 inches of straw bale surrounding it, to support the roof. The builders installed air fins made of ½” Homosote, finished with air-sealing tape fit into specially detailed slots in the wood frame helping to reduce heat loss at joints between materials. Natural clay-based paint coatings and wood coatings were used along with other easy-to-care-for interior finishes such as polished concrete floor.
New Frameworks Natural Building is the straw bale consultant, with Ben Graham and Deva Racusin working on the project. Ben helped the architects with the unique detailing of the straw bale enclosure system. Deva provided construction administration assistance during the straw bale installation and assisted Lee Cooper with straw bale enclosure construction and air-sealing work.
Rural Edge is seeking certification from Efficiency Vermont for the project, as a Vermont Energy Star Home Project. Efficiency Vermont provided invaluable technical assistance during construction. This includes such inspections as blower-door testing, some of which are currently under way. These help prevent energy losses that might result from unnoticed air leaks that might develop during construction. Energy Balance, of Montpelier, Vermont is the energy consultant.
This innovative renewable ready project offers a natural building alternative for putting “affordability” back into affordable housing. When entering the building a “Truth” window graces the entry hall revealing the straw bale wall system to help educate. Time will tell what sort of impact the Page Project will have on Rural Edge’s overall affordability approach and other’s around the state.
Page Project Insulation and Energy Summary:
Author Stephen M. Frey, AIA, LEED AP, is owner and architect at Arocordis Design in Montpelier, VT, an architecture, interiors, and workplace design firm. His website is www.arocordis.com. He frequently collaborates with Ward Joyce, AIA from Ward Joyce Design.Many thanks to our sponsors: